Sunday, August 7, 2022

Dorianne Laux and what is meant when nothing is said

 Dorianne Laux is one of our best free verse poets who can write about everyday things and easily comprehended emotions clearly and with some genius of expression. She serves the situation with a fine, delicate balancing of the prosaic, the simple phrasing, and the higher allure of lyric speech, and allows neither to overwhelm the other. Her poems, often time presented to us in the guise of prose, have an intimacy rare among a generation of poets who maintain distance from their most volatile emotion; her poems have the power of revelation, of someone sorting through old photographs or a rediscovered journal who, while recounting their day, gets a high pitch in their voice as they realize something even they hadn't realized. Laux never forgets herself as a writer with a goal, fret not, there is a point she comes to, the pay-off one expects to make the listing of a poet's personal world resonate in ways it otherwise wouldn't.

She is suspicious of rhetorical resolutions to real problems and relationships that inhabit her poems, and offers instead an intimate tone, the voice of someone who begins to tell you a story after some arduous activity who then lays her bare. Not a confession, not a dumping of toxic emotion, but a revelation, possibly at the very instance when the clarity comes to her; all the bits and pieces of past events with family, husbands, friends who have passed on, are now a whole. Her poetry quite is often something wonderful, intimate, moving. I found this poem fitting for the month, since both my parents died, at different times, in August. The month has been a bit touchy for the family since that time, but we collectively give a shrug and move on with nary a pause to linger over the lives of the couple that born the four of us. One grieves, commemorates, and then moves on, right? Not so fast; sometimes in the middle of watching a television program or waiting for the bus, something falls inside of me. It's the sensation you'd imagine having inside an elevator whose cable had been suddenly cut. The bad news hits you again, and yet again, if you let it. Laux's poem on the matter, to coin phrase, speaks to me, and punches me in the gut.

How It Will Happen, When
Dorrianne Laux

There you are, exhausted from a night of crying, curled up on the couch,
the floor, at the foot of the bed, anywhere you fall you fall down crying,
half amazed at what the body is capable of, not believing you can cry
anymore. And there they are, his socks, his shirt, your underwear
and your winter gloves, all in a loose pile next to the bathroom door,
and you fall down again. Someday, years from now, things will be
different, the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows
shining, sun coming in easily now, sliding across the high shine of wax
on the wood floor. You'll be peeling an orange or watching a bird
spring from the edge of the rooftop next door, noticing how,
for an instant, its body is stopped on the air, only a moment before
gathering the will to fly into the ruff at its wings and then doing it:
flying. You'll be reading, and for a moment there will be a word
you don't understand, a simple word like now or what or is
and you'll ponder over it like a child discovering language.
Is you'll say over and over until it begins to make sense, and that's
when you'll say it, for the first time, out loud: He's dead. He's not
coming back. And it will be the first time you believe it.

This speaker is talking about spending a period of her life trying to talk herself into accepting the loss of her dearly departed, and goes on from there to mention a life that seems detached, dream like; there is an unreal calm in this world as she struggles to push on. She is emotionally numb, so far as I can tell, until it hits hurt, triggered by what some small matter, acutely detailed to her, when the artifice comes apart and the fact of her friend's absence hits hard, almost like being struck. Laux isn't contradicting herself, but instead talking about the transition from merely mouthing the conventional platitudes of acceptance of a loss and the eventual, inevitable realization that her friend's absence is permanent.

Artifice includes ritual, which would be the sort of compulsive house cleaning one occupies their time with while trying to pretend that they are moving on with their life after the death of a loved one; the activity and the manic obsession with the details of these tasks are, for me, a conspicuous clue that there is something the person would rather not deal with. There's an intuitive leap here, and I think the power of the poem is the quick but not illogical insertion of the final remark, that instance when you realize a loved one isn't returning; what Laux does here is shown that a feeling like this is like a sudden attack, coming from seeming nowhere, leaving you in a what I could only describe as a state of shock. This is not a formal argument she is making; this has that eliding quality few poets capture well, the revelation expressed as if we're witnessing the thought coming to the narrator as she speaks. The "clean house" Laux mentions, with everything neatly arranged and placed in their place, every trace of the person gone or tucked in some burnished-over corner:

the house clean for once, everything in its place, windows
shining, sun coming in easily now, skimming across
the thin glaze of wax on the wood floor. (...)

This is an apt metaphor for the attempt to deal with a loss by discarding personal reminders of the departed; the house is "clean", as in emotionally neutral, the goal being that his would be a reclaimed and re-imagined space where comes not to grow but to not feel, not a feel a thing. The absence of pain is mistaken as solace, and the narrator tries to sustain a numbness in her household. But comes undone, inevitably; the years the person had resided in those rooms, the small, shared rituals and pet phrases on familiar furniture have absorbed something of his spirit, it seems, and a memory is triggered, a flash comes upon the narrator. Those who are gone remain in the details, regardless of who hard we scrub the floors or repair the roof:

You’ll be reading, and for a moment, you’ll see a word
you don’t recognize, a simple words like cup or gate or wisp
and you’ll ponder like a child discovering language.
Cup, you’ll say over and over until it begins to make sense,
and that’s when you’ll say it, for the first time, out loud: He’s dead.He’s not coming back, and it will be the first time you believe it.

This is beautifully done, a set-up for someone telling you that they've accepted life on life's terms, with the strong suggestion that they have exhausted their allotment of emotion, only to be struck once again that they've lost something valuable that cannot be replaced. The narrator is at the precipice, the classic existential situation: aware, finally, of the facts of her life as felt experience, it remains her choice to remain in stasis and so become bitter and reclusive, or to finally, truthfully let go of what she's held on to and take new risks.

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